Federal Aviation Administration chief 'confident' agency can keep aviation safe

The head of the Federal Aviation Administration told lawmakers Tuesday that he is “confident” that his agency has the tools it needs to address challenges facing the aviation system, including policing ongoing quality control problems at airplane manufacturer Boeing and its contractors.

In his first appearance before Congress as the head of the FAA, Michael Whitaker said “the safety of the flying public is our mission and it will continue to inform our decision-making going forward.”

“I’m confident in our agency’s ability to address our current challenges and those that lie ahead,” he told members of the House Transportation Committee.

Though the committee’s focus is not specifically on the recent door blowout on board a Boeing 737 MAX 9 aircraft, lawmakers will likely focus significant attention on the circumstances that led to the incident and whether the FAA’s oversight is stringent enough.

During an appearance on CNBC just before he began testifying, and echoed during his early testimony before Congress, Whitaker acknowledged that there were “probably not” enough FAA inspectors at Boeing previously. In addition, he suggested that the FAA’s system of auditing paperwork done by Boeing employees, rather than embedding “boots on the ground” inspectors at Boeing and its contractors, probably had not been rigorous enough.

“The system is designed really as an audit system and I think that hasn’t worked well enough,” Whitaker told CNBC. “So what we’re doing is introducing more direct inspection, putting boots on the ground in the factory rather than reviewing paperwork, and just making sure their quality control system says what it’s supposed to say. We need to have people there that are actually looking at that.”

For now, the FAA has deployed 20 inspectors at Boeing’s Renton, Washington plant where 737 MAX planes are made, and six more at contractor Spirit AeroSystems’ facility in Wichita, Kansas, the facility that produces the 737 MAX fuselage. On Monday the agency said those inspectorswill examine problems with Boeing’s production process that potentially led to the door blowout incident, employee training and qualifications and how Boeing accepts “unfinished work” from its suppliers into its production lines.

At the hearing in the House Transportation Committee, ranking member Rick Larsen (D-Wash.) said, “the MAX 9 accident was terrifying to everybody on board” and called for a “prohibition” on Boeing increasing its production rate until “quality control issues are resolved.” Boeing is now being held to a production rate of 38 MAX planes a month but wants to get back to 50.

All 171 of Boeing’s 737 MAX 9 planes in the U.S. were recently grounded pending inspections. Though a majority of those planes have been addressed and are back flying, the FAA’s limit on how many planes Boeing can produce remains in place.

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